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Benefits of Indigenous language education highlighted

The week of 2-9 July 2017 was NAIDOC week and the focus this year was on the importance of language, using the tagline #ourlanguagematters on social media to spread the message.

Dr Samantha Disbray, a research fellow at Australian National University’s Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language spoke to ELR to discuss the benefits to children of learning indigenous languages and bilingual preschools.

While discussing teaching indigenous languages in an urban context, Disbray commented, “Benefits are various but for Aboriginal kids in urban areas there’s a lot of evidence that the connection to and recognition of their heritage is really important for wellbeing and cultural safety in schools, preschools and institutions”.

“For non-Aboriginal kids, it’s an important part of Australia’s identity and moves towards reconciliation to share that knowledge and to see that (Indigenous languages) as part of Australia’s heritage.

“To teach local Aboriginal languages, broadly, is an important part of understanding our history and local community. Then there are more general language-related learning benefits: there is evidence learning a second language improves memory, pattern recognition, and non-language-related problem-solving-related activities.

“We know that, cognitively, it does your brain a whole lot of good to learn a second language.”

Due to the number of Indigenous language groups, some Indigenous children will not be taught a language from their Indigenous language group, however, Disbray argues that, “Whilst the benefit may not have the same impact as if the Elders teaching you the language were your own kin, it’s still part of a wider pan-Aboriginal recognition of the importance of language.

“For instance, the use of Wiradjuri on the ABC TV series Cleverman has been widely praised for the recognition it provides to Aboriginal language generally.”

This is in direct contrast to the teaching of Indigenous languages in remote communities. In these communities often it is the first language of students and by using it in the early learning environment it helps consolidate language development at an important age.

Disbray says, “The introduction of English to the curriculum needs to be done sensitively with the oral component of English being gradually introduced and with literacy initially being taught in the first language of the children as literacy concepts can be learnt in any language and then transferred to any other language.”

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